Shanghai is a city afflicted by skyscrapers. With a population expected to reach 30 million by 2030, roughly half its inhabitants cram into 5% of the city's surface area. Yet while some observers coo over the impressive changes made to the skyline over Shanghai's wild, three-decade growth spurt, others point to city's high-rise megablocks and question whether quality of life has been sacrificed to vertical construction.
But what if there was a kinder kind of high-rise? Last year, a small architecture firm submitted an idea to a challenge asking teams to re-imagine the city. Instead of designing a building focused on brutalist height, PinkCloud.dk entered renderings that showed horizontal neighborhoods flipped on their sides.
In PinkCloud.dk's vision, called FLIP/CITY, green space would connect workplaces, shops, and residences for people of various incomes on a vertical scale. Communal watering holes would also allow residents to get to know their neighbors in places other than the lobby or mailroom.
"We want a network of streets going up the entire building, so there's not only super-rich guys with their super-rich apartments on top, but public space, public schools, etcetera," Nico Schlapps, one of the project's designers, says.
There's a reason for doing this, and it's not just to be cheeky. At issue is the notion of mixed use—the idea, popularized by New York City urban planning visionary Jane Jacobs, that a diversity of functionalities and people contribute to healthy neighborhoods. The architects argued that flipping a landscape vertically, so that public space connects homes, schools, and workplaces within one building, would create more mixed use communities than high-rises with hundreds of rooms simply stacked on top of one another.
"We didn't like the anonymous way you are in these high rises," says Schlapps. "We were kind of challenging this mono-functional high-rise tower, where you just have one floor next to the other. And we just thought this could be mixed—that we could get back to a village-y scale, where you have different functions next to one another."
It's a nice idea. But there are also lots of obstacles to a plan that tries to "democratize space," as Schlapps puts it. One is that developers are rarely enthused about building diverse communities—often, it's more profitable for them to build new, luxury towers that act like gated communities for the rich. A project like FLIP/CITY would likely require political will, too, and zoning laws would have to adapt to the new mixed-use shapes and needs created by them.
FLIP/CITY will remain a concept for the time being. But developers in other parts of the world are experimenting with real high-rises in new, human-centric ways, too. Take, for example, the 46-floor skyscraper going up in Sri Lanka that will double as a tree conservation effort, or the Milan high-rise with a forest inside it.
Neither of these efforts, though, embrace real mixed use the same way that horizontal neighborhoods do. Hopefully, our cities figure out a more humanist way of building up while there's still breathing room.